Arriving home with Billie felt like we had won the lottery and found out it was all a joke at the same time.
We felt like a pair of frauds. We had this little girl in our arms, but she wasn’t actually ours. At this moment Billie was in the shared care of the local authority and her birth mother; we were simply the foster carers until all the court assessments were completed. As with everyone in this situation, if the child’s needs are not being met (for whatever reason), then a placement order would be made and she would be adopted. We had already been approved as foster carers and adopters, so if a placement order was eventually made, and Billie couldn’t return home, we could apply to adopt her. But nothing was guaranteed.
We knew the risks involved with concurrent caring. We knew that children placed with concurrent planning carers are not considered likely to be able to return to the care of their birth families. But, until all the court assessments are complete, this is not certain, and a small proportion of these children do return to their birth family or other relatives. There were certain precautions that we needed to take to ensure we didn’t all get too attached and because at this point we were officially foster carers. Our names were to be used at all times – we were Lisa and Chris, not ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ and we knew and respected this. While the assessments were being carried out by the courts, as well as giving Billie her everyday care, we would be taking her for regular contact visits with her birth mother and monthly ‘looked-after child reviews’ with social services, not to mention being on the receiving end of home visits from social workers and district nurses. This certainly wasn’t the beginning of us living the parental dream. It was emotional and complicated and delicate for every single person involved and we were all just trying to do our best for this wonderful little girl.
The weeks before had been so intense, and we were – and would continue to be – under such watchful eyes
So, in my head this little visitor had come to stay. She needed feeding and warmth and safety, she needed attention and care and stimulation. She needed love and security. She really needed us, and she needed us to step up to the mark and be the grown-ups and not let her down.
That first day we took her to the park and played on the swings, we fed the ducks and then came home and played with her toys. It felt so liberating to be able to make these choices. To be able to just decide to take her to the park, to play on the swings with her. It was a new sense of responsibility, the beginning of a new chapter, whatever the outcome. I felt myself taking deep breaths, to feel that I could actually exhale again.
The weeks before had been so intense, and we were – and would continue to be – under such watchful eyes. But at least a little of the pressure was off and we were being left to find our feet. We gave Billie lunch and dinner and bathed her with her new bath toys and wrapped her in a new pink snuggly towel. We put her in one of her familiar sleepsuits, gave her a bottle in her cot and read her a story. We sang her a lullaby and then waved her goodnight. Both of us smiling and kissing her little head. We followed ‘the routine’ to the letter. We then turned the lights off, as she liked to sleep completely in the dark, and closed the door.
Chris and I stood on the other side of that door for about 20 minutes, looking at each other and listening to her gurgling into her bottle and singing to herself, hardly daring to move or make a sound for fear that we might disturb her. After about ten minutes, her breathing had become heavy and she sounded like she had drifted off. We waited – no noise – and then a few minutes later we could hear a gentle snoring sound. Billie was asleep. She was actually asleep in our house, in her new cot with her old and new things around her.
We had done it! We had got through the first day. I had made dinner, we had kept her safe, we hadn’t done anything to overstimulate her and she had very happily gone to bed, and more importantly to sleep. This was amazing. I loved the fact that my home felt suddenly more alive. It was already like a proper home. We crept away from the bedroom and sat on the top of the stairs. Maybe we would wait a little longer and then open the door and check on her. Another five minutes passed, and we couldn’t help ourselves. Billie was indeed still where we’d left her. A beautiful little bundle, fast asleep, looking like she hadn’t a care in the world. I looked down at her warm snuggled form. This tiny little stranger. What did she make of us? What did she think of the whole situation?
One minute she was in a foster home, now she was with us, a different set of people looking after her, yet within the space of a day, things felt almost normal. She had seemed to settle so easily and didn’t seem at all disturbed by the fact that she was coming to stay with us, though I knew from the work we had done that it would all be in her head somewhere. A whole new world and new people to get used to. I understood looking at her how important the routine must be and how vital it was that she had her familiar sheets and teddies around her. I knew these small things were like a lighthouse to her in a stormy sea, making her feel as safe as she could and guiding her home. I just wanted to cradle her in my arms and tell her it was all going to be OK.
It was a new sense of responsibility, the beginning of a new chapter, whatever the outcome. I felt myself taking deep breaths, to feel that I could actually exhale again
The first few days went like clockwork. We were not allowed to introduce her to friends or family yet, as she had to get used to us and her new surroundings first. Although we were desperate for her to meet everyone, we understood the reasons behind it. We knew there was still a chance she would be returned home to her birth mother, so we tried to manage our expectations and think only about Billie.
Caring for a toddler means you get into a rhythmic routine pretty quickly. Change, eat, play, sleep, repeat. We were so lucky: Billie was super cute and so very easy to look after. She was always chatting, using a language that she had made up, mixed with a few real words and sounds, always pointing to things and asking what they were. It was a sigh of relief to have the whole weekend with no phone calls or social workers. Just us.
Monday came all too quickly and suddenly we had to get ourselves and Billie ready and into the car for a meeting, as well as something called a ‘looked-after child review’. That first morning seemed like a military operation, with the alarm sounding and us all having to be ready to leave the house. I suddenly realised the amount of ‘stuff’ you need with a toddler and I didn’t want to be caught out by not having something crucial with me, especially as this would be the first time everybody had seen us together.
I’d checked and double-checked the bags, but hadn’t had time to eat any breakfast, so was ratty and nervous in the car. ‘Must be more prepared,’ I thought to myself.
The social workers (ours and Billie’s) met with us to go through what had been happening and to raise any pressing points or questions they needed to ask. This was really just a meeting to see how we were all doing now that the care plan had been carried out and Billie was starting to settle in with us.
Billie ran around and happily entertained the whole room, used to being on display from such an early age. I had to change her nappy in the middle of it and I felt like all eyes were on me as I picked up the changing bag and we headed to the loos. I didn’t want to seem too anxious, but I also didn’t want them to think I was cocky about it all. After all, she had only been in my care for a few days. I felt like they would be judging everything.
Angela had given me a brand-new changing bag that she had been given (and hadn’t used) and I was scared that they would think that I hadn’t listened to anything they had said about being very low-key and keeping everything the same. It was just a bag, but I had really wanted to use it; filling it with nappies, wipes, a change of clothes, snacks and a book had brought me so much joy. Yet here I was, almost covering it up so that nobody saw and thought I hadn’t kept to the rules. Nobody did see. Nobody batted an eyelid; there was too much paperwork to get through and too many questions to be answered concerning Billie’s wellbeing. I would get used to these meetings and they would become almost second nature over the coming months, but for now, it was all so new to me and I was terrified to put a foot wrong. I didn’t need to worry, everyone had confidence in me – I had confidence in myself somewhere too, I just needed to find it.
This is an extract from Meant To Be by Lisa Faulkner, out 26 June 2019.